‘Thy kingdom come’.
How many times have you said that phrase? Probably thousands of times, every time you say the Lord’s Prayer.
What does it mean? What sort of expectation do you have of ‘the Kingdom’?
We meet here on Remembrance Sunday to give thanks for those who have heard the call to go and fight to defend our way of life and our freedom. We remember not only those who did not come back, but also those who came back variously maimed, in body or in mind; and we give thanks that some were able to come back and pick up where they left off.
We remember and give thanks also for those who are still engaged in maintaining our freedom, those who are willing to put their heads over the parapet, literally and metaphorically, for us, for you and me.
But what is this freedom? What are these values we hold so dear? We have been brought up in a Christian country. Some will say that it is no longer a Christian country. Measured in terms of regular church-going or expressed belief, that might be true. But our whole social and legal background is based on Christianity.
Stewart chose this morning to preach on the Beatitudes, rather than the Gospel set for the day. At the time of writing, I don’t know what he will say, but I can see that he is wanting to re-iterate those basic principles which Jesus taught, and which were so counter-intuitive in his time. We all need reminding of these from time to time:
Blessed are the poor, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are the merciful, Blessed are those who are persecuted. And so on. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies.
In our readings, the prophet Amos speaks of the ‘Day of the Lord’, and tells the religious people, with all their formal observances, that this is not what the Lord wants. What He wants is justice:
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
This is what the Kingdom is supposed to be about: justice, peace, mutual respect, recognising that we are all of us made in the image of God. All of us. Friend: enemy. Neighbour: foreigner. Black skinned, white skinned, any colour skinned. Any and every stratum of society.
The Gospel reading we have just heard is one among several which begin ‘the kingdom of heaven is like….’ It is the familiar story of the wise and the foolish virgins, a story of some who were prepared and some who were not. Several of Jesus’ stories liken the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding, in this case a wedding when the bridegroom, never mind the bride, is very late in arriving.
This is really all about what is known as the Second Coming. This is an event which we expect, an event which has fascinated Christians ever since the Ascension, the last time Jesus was seen in the flesh. It is a fascinating idea, and many are the theories about what it will be like. We can’t tell until it happens, but that doesn’t stop us wondering.
The first Christians expected a return not unlike the first time round, but this time to put all wrongs to right, to rule the world. The evidence has to be that this is just as mistaken as the Jews’ expectations of the Messiah. They were looking for someone who would drive out the foreign invaders, leading the army to victory.
That didn’t happen. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey!
2000 years on, we can see that the post-Ascension expectations were wrong as well.
I’ve been fascinated by this whole business right from my school days. One of our schoolmasters taught an idea that I now know goes right back to St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century – but we’ll come to that shortly.
The church has long taught that when we each leave this earth we will face our Maker and be judged. I can’t imagine what that event will be like, but it is our Christian belief that it will happen.
The church has also taught that there will be some sort of general resurrection, a time when all who have ever lived will be sorted, as the Bible says, into the ‘sheep’ and the ‘goats’. (Matthew 25 – the end of this evening’s chapter.)
Are we, then, to be judged twice? Once will be quite enough, thank you!
Aquinas came up with the idea of 2-dimensional time, so that we imagine eternity as one axis of a graph, but our time as the other. A friend of ours said once that he had envisioned our life as stepping out of eternity in to time and then stepping back again. Viewed from the ‘eternity’ axis, this happens simultaneously for all who ever lived or will live.
That way, our Judgement when we leave this earth is the same as the General Resurrection, when all are judged at the same time.
So will the ‘Kingdom’ actually come, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’, or do we have to wait for heaven? A good question. We look around and see so much mischief. Warfare. Hatred. Greed. Selfishness. We see people who claim to worship God engaged in terrible acts of violence. Within Christianity, within the Anglican Communion, we see what appear to be irreconcilable differences. We see people selectively reading the scriptures – Jewish, Christian, Islamic – to justify the most appalling acts ‘in the name of God’.
How can anybody possibly say that the Kingdom is on its way? Answer: read history. If you’ve read any history at all, can you tell me any other time when you would prefer to have lived?
There is plenty of injustice around now. There was far more at almost any time in the past.
There are plenty of places now where there is no peace. Almost any period of history has more.
There are still places where tyranny and dictatorship reign, and there is no freedom. Historically there were far more.
There is still poverty and hunger on a massive scale, but thanks to the way information circulates, thanks, even, to the Internet, we know about this in a way we never did before, and huge strides are being made.
I could list any number of ways in which the Kingdom of God is not yet with us, but we are moving.
We are being constantly reminded this year of the likes of William Tyndale, the first to translate the Bible into English, and Martin Luther, who was not alone in objecting to corruption in the church. They came at a time when the new-fangled printing press made it possible to disseminate their ideas around the world in a way which was previously impossible.
The man who was to become St Thomas More feared this information revolution on the grounds that the scriptures would be misunderstood and misinterpreted, and things would be taken out of context to justify all manner of ungodly activities. He was right. And he was himself involved in some of the ungodly activities.
But this information revolution was responsible in turn for the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and all the benefits that knowledge and science have brought us.
Now we are in the midst – or perhaps just at the beginning – of another information revolution. We know so much more than we ever did before about each other and about the rest of the world. And because of that, we care so much more about the rest of the world. The endless appeals to our pockets simply couldn’t have happened before we knew what was going on around the world. Of course there has been charitable giving for centuries, but I suspect that in times past this came from the pockets of wealthy individuals. Nowadays the appeals are to you and me, Joe Public. And the advent of the Internet has ramped this up in a way that previous generations could not have dreamed of.
I do think that in many ways the Kingdom is appearing ‘on earth, as in heaven’. We have a long way to go, but that’s no reason for letting up.
This is the world that our forebears fought for. It is up to us to make sure that progress continues. We are not powerless, and we can start in our own village – but that’s another sermon!